Flying the UMC Trapeze

I have been thinking about this in-between time of being the Columbia District Superintendent and the new senior pastor of St. John’s UMC, Aiken. At 12:01 on this coming Wednesday it will be official, but I have already been flying the trapeze by attempting to let go of one bar to grab the other one. We have already moved into a house in Aiken. We have eaten in some great local restaurants, walked the streets, and met great new people both in the community and in the church. I have been acclimating myself to new surroundings while driving back to Columbia to fulfill my last days as DS – attempting to live in two worlds.

Jim Elliott, deceased missionary, was absolutely correct when he said, “Wherever you are, be all there!” I can’t reach out and be fully the pastor that St. John’s needs unless I let go of the other trapeze bar, and I surely don’t want to get caught hanging in the middle between the old and new. Flying the trapeze with one hand grasping one bar while the other hand is clenching the other is untenable. How many of us have found ourselves caught in similar circumstances between jobs, relationships, or situations? We catch ourselves wondering if we should risk a new thing or hold onto the familiar. One has to let go and be all there, wherever the “there” is.

As preachers move this next week there is going to be a lot of anxiety. There will be anxiety for churches and for clergy, and fear can be paralyzing. One church sign was frighteningly near the truth in this appointment transition time for churches and clergy: “Don’t let worry kill you, let the church help!” It’s almost not funny! For pastors and church members caught in pastoral transition, worry and church can often go hand in hand. What do we do with our worries? Do we bury them, or let them bury us? Do we have enough faith to take risks for God? Are we ready to move into God’s new opportunities for us? Are we ready to let go of the former things and embrace the new?

One day in July, a farmer sat in front of his shack, smoking a corncob pipe. Along came a stranger who asked, “How’s your cotton coming?” “Ain’t got none,” was the answer as he continued, “Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid of the boll weevil.” The visitor then asked, “Well, how’s your corn?” The farmer replied, “Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid o’ drought.” The visitor continued his line of questioning, “How about potatoes?” The reply was familiar, “Ain’t got none. Scairt o’ tater bugs.” The stranger finally asked, “Well, what did you plant?” “Nothin’,” answered the farmer. “I just played it safe.”

Playing it safe can be downright disastrous. Divine motivation demands our willingness to go out on a limb. Fear has to be defeated. Some of us anticipate the worst and don’t try anything. God wants us to put on our wave-walking shoes and get out of the boat of our comfort zone. I know that we all fear the unknown. I like routine as well as the next person. I’m infamous for ordering the same dish in restaurants. It’s simple really. I don’t want to be disappointed, but if I’m not willing to try something new, think what delights I’ve missed.

When a person fears the worst will happen, their own thoughts may help bring it about. Someone once wrote, “Fear is the wrong use of the imagination. It is anticipating the worst, not the best that can happen.” The story has been told about a salesman who had a flat tire while driving on a lonely country road one dark and rainy night. He opened the trunk and discovered that he didn’t have a lug wrench. He looked around and could barely see a light coming from a farmhouse. With relief in mind, he started walking through the driving rain toward the house.

The salesman began to think all kinds of thoughts. He thought, for instance, that the farmer would surely have a lug wrench that he could borrow. Next he thought about how late at night it was, and, of course, the farmer would be asleep in his warm dry bed. Maybe he wouldn’t answer the door. And even if he did, he’d be angry at being awakened in the middle of the night. And so on and on his thoughts went as he was walking to the farmhouse. Being soaking wet didn’t help his thought process, either.

He pondered that even if the farmer did answer the door, he would probably shout some rude vulgarity at him. This thought made the salesman mad. After all, what right did the farmer have to refuse him the loan of a simple lug wrench? He was stranded in the middle of nowhere soaked to the skin, and the farmer was a selfish clod! Fuming, the salesman finally reached the house and banged hard on the door. A light went on inside, and a window opened above. A voice called out, “Who is it?” His face white with anger, the salesman called out, “You know darn well who it is. It’s me! And you can keep your blasted lug wrench. I wouldn’t borrow it now if you had the last one on earth!” Anticipating the worst can become self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to give God a chance and stop worrying!

I hereby covenant to take a risk by trusting in God’s unfailing providence. Because God always provides, I am going to take flight on the trapeze bar of United Methodist itinerancy. I will not be caught in the middle, but will risk letting go of the past and embrace the glorious future called St. John’s UMC, Aiken! What risks are you willing to take on God’s trapeze?

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Curing Optic Rectosis

Back in 1996 I was elected to my first of 5 General Conferences of the United Methodist Church. Since then I’ve been on some very effective teams and some that weren’t. I was on the former General Council on Ministries for 4 years, The Connectional Table for 8 years, The Worldwide UMC Study Committee for 4 years, and now on the General Commission on Religion and Race for a four-year term. I’ve been on plenty of other teams in the global UMC including mission teams, pastoral teams, and am now in my eighth year of a Cabinet team. I also like to think of the Columbia District as a team. That’s been our motto: “Together We Can Do More!” and it has happened. I clearly remember the use of “team” back in 1996 as our Episcopal nominee, Ted Walter, gave his speech before the gathered delegates of the Southeastern Jurisdiction as we met in Denver, CO at General Conference.

He used a story to emphasize that he wanted to be a part of an Annual Conference’s team. The story went something like this: “A mule named ‘Jim’ was being driven by his owner. When everyone got on the wagon, the driver yelled ‘Giddyup, Jim. Giddyup, Sue. Giddyup, Sam. Giddyup, John. Giddyup, Joe.’ As the wagon started to move, one of the passengers said: ‘When Jim is the only one there, why did you call all those other names?’ The owner replied: ‘If Jim knew he was the only one pulling this wagon, he’d never budge an inch.’ It takes teamwork.”

Sometimes when I get optic rectosis, which is a nice way of saying I’ve been looking at life from a position a lot lower than a pat on the back, it helps to know the truth of 2 passages of Scripture that have a lot in common: I Corinthians 10:13 and I Peter 5:9-11. They have a lot in common, especially that God delivers and that we’re never alone when we think we’re the only one in the world going through this mess.

Listen to the commonalities between the passages. First, I Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up against it.” I Peter 5:9-11 says, “Resist him (the devil), standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered for a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”

What I hear is that I’m not the only one who has ever been through this crud. There are plenty of other sojourners who walk a similar path, and in both passages we have a God who is faithful and strong and on our side! Now that’s a team!

“Team” is a simple word to describe the Trinitarian theology that I appreciate so much, although I’m a little taken aback at the words I’ve heard lately at the conclusion of prayers: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Didn’t Jesus say to pray in his name? What’s with this? Maybe I’m late to the game, but it’s no big deal, really. After all when you see one person of the Trinity, you see all three at work in that marvelous dance, distinct but indivisible, when Holy Perichoresis takes place.

“Perichoresis” is a word composed of two roots: peri which means around, and choresis from whence we get our word, to dance. In other words, God is always dancing around as a team, as the Trinity – always on the move, on the go, and at the ready – together! Better news for us is that when we feel alone facing life’s problems we should remember that we bear the Imago dei, the Image of God. Therefore, if God exists and works in the community that we call the Trinity how much more so should we lean upon one another when times are tough? We are vital members of a divine-human team that always wins!

Why do you think that “ER” was so popular on TV from 1994-2009, or “Bones” now? One reason is that emergencies or crisis management, require not solo players but team play, and we are enthralled and galvanized by the way in which a motivated team can take on a challenge. It’s not white knights, lone wolves or highflying eagles that solve crises. It’s team play. Can I dare say it’s the Trinity and the church!

So chunk your optic rectosis and hold your head up! You’ve got a lot of big-time H/help all around you! “Together We Can Do More!”

Appointment-making and Itinerancy!

As I write this our appointment-making cabinet is on lunch break, and I thought it might be a good time to write a few reflections. This effort tends to affect your desire to eat anyway. For me, it either makes me want to endlessly get up and graze at our snack table, or makes my appetite utterly disappear. I’m not too hungry today. Those whose lives depend upon what we do here, don’t let my lack of appetite freak you out. Things are going extremely well as we ponder the best match of pastoral gifts and graces and church needs. I appreciate so much Bishop Jonathan Holston, South Carolina’s new bishop. He is a keen observer of people and has already made significant relationships across our annual conference that informs this process. He is transparent, fair, and impresses upon the cabinet that the missional aspect of our appointments should always be foremost in our shared thinking.

We follow Wesley’s rules of “Do no harm. Do Good. Stay in love with God.” We are very careful to avoid harming churches and clergy (including their families). We sincerely want to do good for all involved. We especially want to honor and stay in love with God for whom this kingdom-building enterprise exists. This is hard work, exhausting work. We use every bit of information that we can muster identifying church needs and clergy gifts and family contexts. We pore over statistical data that churches supply along with their self-identified opportunities and points of concern. We try to look for laser-like clarity as we study the consultation information and profiles of clergy. We kill a lot of trees with putting together all this information about churches and pastors, plus we have all sorts of electronic information that we project on the screen in the room. It’s an arduous process and we need your prayers. The clergy and families along with the churches need plenty of prayer, too.

We are a sent-system of clergy deployment. Ministers are called by God when they enter United Methodist ministry and are sent from then on. Churches don’t call pastors, and preachers don’t self-select their places of service. We try to make for good matches so that Jesus is glorified and God’s grace is more effectively shared. I have even pondered if we might spread the Word better if we moved all of our church members and left the clergy where they are. That would be missional!

I can remember the times in my ministry when I have really wondered about the wisdom or apparent lack thereof behind appointment-making. Everyone in United Methodist itinerant ministry and all the churches who have been receiving pastors over the years have been burned more than a few times. We have probably all wondered, “Did the District Superintendent listen to us?” After seven years as a DS I know that the answer is “Yes!” Sometimes that listening doesn’t provide an answer that’s either expected or desired. My experience on the Cabinet is that we try our very best to be faithful to this ministry for the good of all and for the glory of God.

A lot of you, clergy and SPRC Chairs, are going to get expected and unexpected phone calls at the end of the week. Please know that you are appreciated, prayed for, and loved. Let’s all continue to bathe this process in prayer. Every day we have appointments to keep. As United Methodists this takes on special meaning during this time of year. What does God want you to do today? As we make appointments, my prayer is that we all keep our God-appointments today. May our walk with God empower all of lives to be fruitful wherever we’re sent today!

Addendum: I just grazed at the snack table and was sifting through the mini-candy bars and felt something unusual. It was a Baby Ruth all sealed up with nothing but air inside. All kinds of thoughts and sermon uses have popped into my head, plus some thoughts about some of our churches and clergy and appointment-making. Before you take offense, no, of course, I’m not talking about you! Nevertheless, what sermon titles or appointment thoughts pop into your mind? “All Dressed up, but nothing inside,” “Nice Wrapper…,” “All Show and No Dough,” “Looks Good on the outside, Empty on the inside,” …. lots of possibilities come to mind. Tell me your thoughts as it pertains to the church! Congress is off-limits!

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Frankenstorms and Questions of Why

One of my clergypersons in the Columbia District is enduring an unusual burden. His wife’s parents have been ill. Saturday night the father died at home. The mother was in the hospital, and the family decided not to tell her until Sunday morning. In their tenuous broaching of the news with her, she interrupted them, “I know what’s going on. Jack’s dead. I felt it during the night.” Within a few hours she was gone, too. Eleven hours apart they met Jesus face to face. It’s a powerful example of the intuitive power of love in a good marriage, yet a tough grief for a family to bear. How do we handle such news? Where is our solace?

Overcome by the news trickling out of the middle and upper Atlantic regions of the U.S. and the broad swath of tragic effects from Hurricane Sandy, I think there’s a message for all who go through the trials of life. Here we are in an uncertain economy, a toss-up election season, and a society that has more non-religious people than people of faith. What is our message to a hurting world overcome by natural calamity and difficult choices? What is our message to Marcus Lattimore, University of South Carolina running back and faithful United Methodist, who has already endured one horrific knee injury and rehab last year only to have another disaster hit his other knee this past Saturday? How do we encourage this forlorn planet where so many bad things happen to good people?

First off we have to answer people’s “Why?” questions with a non-Rick Warren/Purpose-Driven response. We do not believe it is God’s purpose to harm God’s children. That would be child abuse! The Scriptures tell us that “every good and perfect gift comes from our Father in Heaven …” (James 1:17). Therefore, hurricanes, cancer, knee injuries, and economic disasters don’t come from God. Grace is what comes from God. Call the source of calamities whatever or whomever you will, but never say that it’s the God we have encountered in Jesus. Jesus enters our pain rather than causing it. He redeems our fallen faltering world. He works for good our mistaken freedom-caused dilemmas that have led us down the dark path of blaming God instead of the real culprits.

So today as I ponder my daughter’s continuing saga of a brain tumor, and my dismay at the world’s suffering, I will NOT go quietly into the dark abyss of hopeless fatalism that falsely claims that our God is the enemy. I will rather face this day and every day with the Christian Hope that life trumps death; God’s grace and strength are sufficient for every time of need; and I am one of God’s agents for redemption in every situation. I choose to remember God today!

I dare you to read Roberta Bondi’s Memories of God as a way to recall the ways of God in tough times. Her last chapter is especially helpful to me. It is entitled, “Memories of God: In the Communion of Saints.” In it she poignantly describes her Auntie Ree’s last days on earth and the struggle Roberta had with medical professionals about her aunt’s end-of-life decision. Her Aunt Ree was ready to die and refused further treatment. The healthcare professionals wanted to attempt some more heroic efforts. Unable to fend for herself, Roberta interceded on her aunt’s behalf. Her Auntie Ree was ready to leave the Church Militant and join the Church Triumphant. With Roberta’s successful intervention, the last doctor and nurse indignantly left the room. Roberta says that her aunt’s joy was overflowing at that point, not so much because of the absence of jabbing needles, but because, as Aunite Ree said to Roberta, “You have given me eternity, my darling.” She thanked Roberta over and over again for the gift of transition from one life to another.

All Hallow’s Eve is tomorrow, October 31, and my mind is swirling with memories. My mother was the best at finding the right houses to get the most Halloween candy. Every year the car would be filled with ghoul and goblin dressed kids who wanted a chance to ride on my mother’s treasure-filled route. She made me a popular kid! I miss her greatly. She was so full of love and gave it so freely.

Bondi’s book comforts me because in 1993 after suffering a major stroke I hung on the side of Mother’s bed begging her to wake up and come back to us. I was selfish. I think that I got my wish because she was selfless and responded out of her love for us without a thought about herself. As usual! Unfortunately, she came back with only the faintest resemblance of her old self. She was so debilitated. She could only move one finger and smile just a bit and that was it. In her gift to us she allowed us a few short months to say goodbye and let her go. As she was finally dying, like Roberta Bondi’s Auntie Ree, you could see the response in Mother’s eyes, “You have given me eternity, my darlings.”

As Halloween approaches and I think of Mother I find great comfort in the Apostles’ Creed. In it we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints.” What does it mean? Very few of the classes that I had in seminary discussed it, so I naturally assumed it had something to do with Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s not that it doesn’t in a tangential way, but the creed speaks of a communion that goes well beyond the tremendum mysterium of a regular Communion service. It really wasn’t until my parents died that a study of eschatology gave me a proper grip on the subject.

The “Communion of Saints” is all about eschatology. Eschatology is literally “a study of last things.” So, when we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints” we’re saying that we believe that there is some sort of mystical interaction, call it influence, memory, or inward impression that occurs between the saints in heaven and those on earth – an intersection of this life and the after-life. Saints on earth are called the Church Militant because we’re still struggling through life. The saints in heaven are called The Church Triumphant because they have overcome. Though dead, they are yet alive and continue to influence and inspire us to greatness.

They cannot see the bad things that we do. That wouldn’t be heaven, would it? I cherish the hope that just as much as I can feel my mother and father’s cheerleading presence, somehow, they, too, can know the good things that happen in my life. If they can see the good that I do, I am inspired to do all the more. Therefore, the “Communion of Saints” is a wonderful basis for inspiration and hope. It evokes the image of the family table reunited, loves ones living eternally, the cross-generational transmission of positive influence, and the circle unbroken.

Robert Benton’s Academy Award-winning film “Places in the Heart” captures this motif better than I can say it. The movie is a story of a young woman, played by Sally Field, widowed within the first few minutes of the film, struggling against all odds in a desolate corner of Texas during the 1930s. Her husband is killed and human vultures try to take away the only thing her husband has left her and her two small children – a small farm. The tapestry of Benton’s story is woven with every sin and hardship imaginable.

Then the film ends with a communion service. At first the camera shows you a few of the good folk in town. Next, the film reveals some of the not-so-good characters who have been part of the movie, like the banker and others who conspired to take away the farm. They’re all sitting together on the same pew, or in the same church. Suddenly the scene morphs into a visualization of the Communion of Saints. The camera continues to move with the cups of wine. There is the faithful African-American farmhand who helped bring in the crop so the widow might pay her mortgage; next to him, the blind boarder. The plate passes to the children, then to their mother. She is seated next to her late husband. As you are trying to take this in, the plate moves to the deceased young man who shot her husband. They commune, and each responds one to the other: “The peace of God.” All these folks, some dead and some alive, commune, and there’s peace!

This is more than a regular Sunday morning Communion service; this is the kingdom, eternity captured in time. The camera has given us a new look at life, the way Jesus said God looks at it. God has done something to enable everyone to come to the Table. The apostle Paul says it this way: “In Christ, God was reconciling us to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.” This is the Communion of Saints that we celebrate! This coming All Saints Day, Thursday, November 1, 2012, I will remember. Though the goblins of life attack and assail us in countless ways, I will not yield to despair. I will claim the Good News of Jesus Christ that God is love and love turns crosses into crowns. That is the story of Jack and Judy Lewis who died 11 hours apart. It is the message that the world needs desperately to hear on tough days. This is the only way for all the non-religious people to survive the Frankenstorms of life. In Jesus, the Wounded Healer, we can find hope and redemption.

Guaranteed Appointments, Itinerancy, and Being Sent for Jesus

It’s Annual Conference time for most of us. Ministers are moving and churches are receiving new clergypersons. It’s a time fraught with anxiety. Clergy ask, “Will my children like the new place? Will my spouse find a good job? Will my call be fulfilled here or squelched?” Churches wonder such things, too. Will they like their new pastor, how many changes will there be in the order of service, and will the sermons and pastoral care be good? It’s a scary time in an itinerant system. However, John Wesley said, “Itinerancy was the apostolic plan for evangelization.” He thought literal movement of preachers helped Methodism stay a vital spiritual movement. Here’s the current rub: We expect elders to itinerate and whole families to pick up and move, but now we’re not going to promise a place to serve. At first glance this doesn’t seem fair, but we are all concerned about denominational decline and wonder if higher accountability will increase clergy and church fruitfulness. Tongue-in-cheek, it has struck me that we might have a better chance at revival if we left the preachers where they are and moved all the people. Just a thought, ha!

Regardless, General Conference 2012’s action to delete “guaranteed appointments” has made our whole system more anxious. My prediction is that the Judicial Council will rule the legislation unconstitutional because it allows each Annual Conference to be the arbiter of what the word “Ineffective” or “Effective” means. That strikes me as an abrogation of the GC’s authority “over all matters distinctively connectional… and to define the powers and duties of elders” (Par. 16, 2008 BOD). Sure, the Annual Conference is constitutionally the “fundamental” (Par. 11) and “basic” (Par. 33) body of the United Methodist Church, but the Annual Conference cannot subtract from the basic ministerial credentialing standards of the Book of Discipline: BOD Par. 304.5 and Judicial Decision 536 (www.umc.org). It seems to me that each Annual Conference’s interpretation and definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness” allows the Annual Conference to trump the powers reserved to the General Conference and lessen common standards of effectiveness.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for clergy excellence and an easier way to deal with clergy deemed unappointable, but I also remember being on the sexuality subcommittee at the 1996 General Conference where we had to define what “self-avowed practicing homosexual” meant. Committees on Investigation in Annual Conferences could not make their own interpretation or verify complaints until the GC defined the actual meaning of the phrase. We’re in a similar situation here. In a connectional church with transfers of clergy from here to yon, there needs be one definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness.” I wonder if that’s even possible given the subjectivity involved. As a District Superintendent I have to ponder the objectivity or subjectivity of negative letters and phone calls on a daily basis and respond accordingly. It’s no small task!

Ministry is no small task! It’s a high calling to be in ministry. We have the extraordinary blessing of being incarnational with people in their most significant life events. Of course there’s the challenge of being on call 24/7, but I have heard very few complaints from clergy who are sincerely answering God’s call. One issue, however, that I have heard about is housing. Most of our clergy still live in church-provided parsonages. The parsonage system for United Methodist clergy is intended to facilitate the movement of ministers from church to church without being encumbered by the distractions of buying, selling, or owning a house. It’s a fine system unless you have no clue where you’re going to live when you retire.

I’ve been thinking about ministry a lot lately. Only the Good Lord knows what will happen to us in the Bishop Election Process in July. Then there’s our daughter Narcie who is about to start her next appointment as a United Methodist elder in the Wesley Foundation Director position at the University of Florida in Gainesville. On top of that, Josh, our middle child, is about to receive his second appointment as an elder. He’s projected to be a new Associate Pastor at Shandon UMC. For the last 5 years he’s been the pastor of a two-point charge. He graduated from Clemson in engineering, and I was selfishly hoping his success in that field would help finance our retirement home. Now he and his family are trying to figure out where they will live because Shandon provides a housing allowance. It appears that itinerancy and a whole lot of moving may be in our personal forecast in the next several months. The operative word for all UM clergy is “may.”

Ministry is a strange life. It’s a wonderful life. After living in parsonages for 32 years, teaching United Methodist polity for a decade at Candler, and a DS for the last 6, I have found myself evaluating our way of being church. We are an Episcopal (Episkopos is Greek for “Bishop”) system of government tempered by conferences. In other words, we have Bishops that appoint ministers to their various fields of service, yet it is General Conference that authorizes Bishops for the task. Annual Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry recommend persons to be licensed, commissioned, or ordained and the Clergy Session votes approval or not, then the Bishop acts. Both have to be in concert with one another. We conference all the way up from the local Charge Conference, District Conference, Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, to global church at General Conference. Then we receive and accept the clergy appointments made by the episcopacy. At the most local level, the 11-person Staff-Parish Relations Committee, once a year, advises the Bishop as to whether or not they think it’s time for a new clergyperson to come to their church, and once a year, pastors state whether or not they want to move.

Notice this is all advisory. The church may have its desires and agenda, but it’s also only advisory. Also note that clergy don’t get to say whether or not they’re willing to move. Willingness to move was assumed for me when I was ordained elder 32 years ago. I dare say that the same is pretty much true for anyone called to be a deacon or a local pastor. It’s part and parcel of being in ministry. Therefore, we take our appointments, yours and mine, “without reserve,” as our Book of Discipline puts it (Par. 333.1). We are a “sent” system, not a “call” system. Our system offers a means by which clergy and churches are matched and ministry is enhanced. If either the clergy or the congregation has any reservations or veto power then the whole system breaks down. So a lot of faith is necessary in this enterprise, not to mention, a lot of leadership and discipleship.

It’s a mark of our discipleship, whether we’re clergy or not, to go where we’re sent for Jesus everyday. By the way, if you ever wondered why some ministers wear a stole and others don’t, it’s all about whether they have been ordained. Ordination places one under the orders of God and the Bishop to go where they’re sent, like the reins on a horse. This whole discussion begs the question, “What would our discipleship look like if we all took our orders seriously, if God held the reins of our entire lives?” Brendan Manning gets at a good answer in his book, The Signature of Jesus, “Discipleship means living one day at a time as though Jesus were near: near in time, near in place, the witness of our motives, our speech, our behavior. As indeed he is.”

My prayer is that we will do everything possible to live into God’s preferred direction today – whether as clergy or laity. This will yield fruit for the Kingdom and give evidence of our faithful discipleship. In my mind, that’s effective itinerancy and might just enhance this “apostolic plan of evangelization!”

Women Clergy and “Stained Glass Ceiling”

I have been traveling for the last 3 months to all the churches in the Columbia district presiding over charge conferences. Unfortunately, even in this day and age, I continue to hear gender bias and the dreaded phrase, “Some of our people won’t accept a woman as their pastor.” The church has long caused clergywomen to hit the “stained glass ceiling” of serving smaller parishes with lower salaries. As a justice issue, we should all agree that equal work should result in equal pay. I have two children who are Elders in the United Methodist Church, one daughter and one son. Narcie and Josh are both unique and are great! Of course, I’m prejudiced, but let me tell you as objectively as I can that both are better preachers and leaders, pastors and teachers than a lot of the clergy that I know. My daughter should not get short shrift because of her gender! She is excellent and she’s working harder than most male clergy AND she has the prolonged anxiety of a brain tumor on top of everything else. When people talk about women clergy in a disparaging way I want to say, “Give me a break!”

The church hasn’t always been this way about women’s leadership in Chirstianity. In the early church, women earned positions of prominence. During Jesus’ life it was primarily the largesse of working or wealthy women that provided the support that Jesus and the disciples needed (Matthew 27:55-56; Luke 8:2-3). Women were the first to hear the news of the resurrection. Women were there at the prayer session in the Upper Room that led to the birth of the church at Pentecost. Phoebe was a Deacon in the church at Cenchrea that Paul greeted in Romans 16:1 and the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist prophesied/preached (Acts 21:8). And where would the church be without Mary, the mother of Christ? Paul sums up the equality of Christian community in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It was also Paul who reminded St. Timothy of the source of his faith, “which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice,” and, how “from infancy you have known the holy scriptures (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:15).”

Therefore, if women were so indispensable at the beginning of the church, how can we imagine women being left out today? Unfortunately, the early church acceptance of women dissipated all too rapidly into an enculturated male-dominated entity. We have sadly experienced 2000 years of allowing the secular world shape the sacred. This is all the more reason to celebrate, rather than disparage the influence of women in the church. If it weren’t for the faith of my mother, grandmother, wonderful female Sunday School teachers and mentors (I never had a male teacher in grade school or at church), my faith would have either been nonexistent or desperately inadequate. Women are the core-supporters of many churches. United Methodist Women are invaluable as leaders in ministry and mission. I thank God for what they do in the Columbia District, the Annual Conference, and General church!

We need more women leaders (men, too, for that matter). Thank goodness the United Methodist Church has long supported the call of women into ordained ministry. Still, however, clergywomen are a minority and there are those who wish to keep it that way. Here’s my response to churches that don’t want a female pastor, “Get over it!”

Gender issues and discrimination should be a dead issue in every profession. We have made great strides, but there is room for growth. In 1888 there were only 5 laywomen and no clergywomen at the United Methodist General Conference. After approximately 90 years of almost no representation, in 1976 there were 10 clergywomen and 290 laywomen out of 1000 delegates at General Conference. In 1992, it was 81 clergywomen and 303 laywomen out of 1000. In 1996, it was 107 and 328 respectively. In 2000 the numbers were 112 clergywomen and 212 laywomen. In 2008, of the 996 delegates, 148 were clergywomen and 220 were laywomen. Forty percent of the total delegates were female.

The church certainly has more than 40% women despite the number of those elected. It seems that the gospel hasn’t caught up with us yet in the church. The secular world has laws and changing attitudes in its favor, but we have something even greater – God’s Spirit! The Church should be the leader, as it was in the beginning, in women’s rights!

Memories of God

A week ago today 15 of the Columbia District clergy went to the top of Mt. Mitchell for 3 days of retreat. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Things are so busy right now. I have consultations every hour on the hour for the next 3 weeks. I have charge conferences to preside over every night. This past Friday night I had to work in a SPRC meeting dealing with church conflict. Yesterday was 3 charge conferences plus two sermons, one filling in for a preacher who had a heart cath on Friday. I’m whipped but here I am back at it. Such is the life of a United Methodist District Superintendent, but, thank God for Sabbath rest when it comes.

Thank God for memories, too. Sometimes I fall asleep thinking/praying about God’s grace and providence. I remember my parents, other family members, special events like great times with Cindy or Narcie, Josh, and Caleb. I think about their weddings, graduations, the joy of hearing them preach and grow, become parents to Enoch, Evy, And Kaelea. I think about being in a tent for two weeks for two years in a row with Caleb and can feel the gentle breeze while sleeping ever so soundly. I just wrote a note for a friend who is about to go on the Walk to Emmaus Spiritual Life Weekend reminding him of how often I have seen God in his life. I’ll never forget how he came and sat up all night with me in the hospital as my Dad was dying. Last night as I preached revival I was blessed to see many friends from a former church that I served. Good and poignant memories flooded my mind.

I am rereading Roberta Bondi’s Memories of God. It is a sublime reminder of God’s presence in the nodal points of our lives, the hinge-moments that shape our theology and understanding of God. The narrative of God intersects with our narrative and Jesus’ incarnation is made personally real. In twenty-minutes I have my first consultation of today and they go straight through until late this afternoon when I head to a charge conference. It is good to start the day with memories of God. They are fresh every day and get me through it. I took the above photos last Monday and they will serve me well as good memories of God’s unfailing presence! Soak up the memories so that they will last. Dwell on them so that they inspire you. Have a great week.

Above the Din

Sunset from Campsite #2 on Mt. Mitchell

I watched some of the families and survivors of 9/11 this morning before I went to church. It was very meaningful, in fact, maybe more so ten years later than it was at the time. I was a very distracted person ten years ago. I’m no less busy now, but maybe I’m more reflective. Perhaps it was 9/11 that had something to do with that. Maybe it was the need for time away in the cacophony that comes from the tyranny of the urgent. Anyway, listening to the recorded phone messages from those who perished on 9/11, and hearing their families experiences of reassurance was powerful. I heard a theme of God’s presence and it gave comfort.

For the past ten years, truly since I was a little boy, I have found that kind of reassurance on top of Mt. Mitchell. Solitude and reflection are easy to come by up there. I went there as a teenager to sense God’s call. All alone. Me and God. I went back during college a number of times. I have been going there multiple times a year ever since just to be, to listen, to soak up God’s presence. It’s such a beautiful and awe-inspiring place. It’s the highest mountain east of the Rockies. It’s always 30 degrees cooler than South Carolina. There are balsam and spruce and it smells like Christmas year round. It snows every month of the year. It’s a Canadian climate zone. There are no showers, but they have a restroom and two hand pumps for water. There are only 9 campsites so you’re never really overwhelmed by noise. The photo is from just a few weeks ago when I went with a fellow clergy friend to scout things out for our district retreat. He’s spending the night with us tonight and in the morning 15 of the Columbia District clergy are heading up for our yearly retreat. I wish more were going, but we do have some newbies. I hope they will find it as wonderful as I think it is.

We all need a place to hush our runaway minds. Perhaps you have read one of the many versions of the story that I will call “The Overflowing Tea.” The setting changes, but the cast of characters remains the same. There’s always a wise monk or hermit living in a remote place, and an earnest student who has made a pilgrimage to see him, traveling a long distance to find the teacher who will give him all the answers that he needs about life. The student arrives with all kinds of questions and the teacher just sits there saying nothing. The student asks for his questions to be answered. The teacher finally says, “Pour me a cup of tea and I will tell you when to stop.” The student pours away and keeps pouring as the tea overflows the cup. Exasperated the student speaks up, “Can’t you see the cup is full? It can hold no more!” “And so it is with you,” the wise teacher replies. “Your mind full of too many things. Only when you are empty will there be room for more knowledge to come in.”

I am headed to Mt. Mitchell to open my mind to God and others, or maybe it’s better said that I’m going to open my mind to God THROUGH others. We will hike together, laugh together, eat and fellowship together – know God together. Distractions will be few because cell service is non-existent up there. We will have a wonderful fire and hopefully it will warm our souls with God’s comforting presence. It’s the day after 9/11 for a lot of people. Listen to God’s voice above the din of sirens and tears. Aren’t we all ready for that extraordinary sense of God? Yep!

Mt. Mitchell at Midnight

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I just got back from our Columbia District Clergy Retreat on top of Mt. Mitchell in Western North Carolina. It is the tallest peak east of the Rockies, 6,684 feet. It was 30 degrees cooler and the weather was absolutely perfect. I have been there so many times when we had lots of wet weather, or the wind was 50 mph. These past three days were perfect.

The sky was so clear that 4 of us hiked up to the summit in the dark. The Milky Way was hovering over us, and the Big Dipper seemed so close that you could reach out and touch it. The photo above is the four of us standing on top of the observatory at about midnight. It was awesome! One thing that hit me is that darkness helps you see what would normally be invisible. There are dark times in our lives: uncertainty, anxiety about health, finances, ministry, etc. God light shines best when we allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness and see the unseen yet real presence of God.

The whole retreat was helpful. New friends were made. We shared together our thoughts on Peter Steinke’s book on being a courageous leader without reactivity in the face of anxiety. We ate Black Beans and Rice one night, Chicken Bog with Smoked Sausage; anyway it was GREAT. We did have a bear visit us last night but no injuries and no damage to our tents, just a little excitement.

Anyway, I’ve been taking groups of preachers up to the top of Mitch for 5 years now. Having a quiet place to go above the cell phone towers and the fray of the tyranny of the urgent is important. We ain’t Superman and even he needed a Fortress of Solitude. This was ours for a few blissful days.

With Labor Day approaching and knowing that so many people are feeling stuck in jobs just for the benefits and not a calling, I certainly hope that those who feel like this are able to find a place where there can be responsive reflection and not anxious reactivity. Peace, Peace, Peace – In the dark, God’s light still shines.

The Methodist Movement

As I write this I’m in the home stretch of conducting Charge Conferences for the Columbia District. I enjoy hearing the reports of what each church is doing. Each has a success story, a unique personality, a history, and a tragedy or two. I see much of my call as a District Superintendent to get to know as much as I can about the churches. Sure, I spend as much time as I can with my clergy, but I’m a firm believer that clergy exist for churches, not churhes for clergy. Our connectional system isn’t a welfare system for flunky preachers. It’s our special way to help Methodism remain a movement!

I have seen movement in the Columbia District churches. In my way of having townhall-style charge conferences, I give time for people to ask me whatever they want to ask, deal with the “hidden” issues that are beneath the surface, and simply have conversation. Sometimes things get heated. Usually, however, this is an opportunity for catharsis and healing. I even try to get to each church early so I can walk around the facilities, and the cemeteries. You can tell a lot about how a church is doing by how well things are cared for. So far, I can honestly say that things are going well in the Columbia District. Many churches have had significant growth in disciples and disciple-making. Our district is the only one in South Carolina that has gone up this year in apportionment payment to connectional giving. We lead the Annual Conference.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. The people tell it and retell it every time they live and breathe their faith, and speak of the hope that is within them through Jesus. I have to share why this is important through a piece that I first heard through Bishop John Hopkins of the East Ohio Annual Conference:
“An interesting article was written in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Starr Concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live. It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, Children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation. And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.

“Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote and editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

· Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”
· Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)
He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”

Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implication…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

Other people see and say about us what we can’t see, or are too bashful to say about ourselves: The world needs a new generation of United Methodists to lead the way to change the world. Are we ready to go?”